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(An Afghan Winter Continued)
Mansour said: ‘You want to know the difference between Taliban and Al Qaeda. Let me explain.’ He turned around to face a bushkashi painting on the wall behind his desk. Bushkashi was the national sport of Afghanistan, in which rough and rugged riders battled for the custody of a sheep’s carcass.
Most days Yusuf and I ate lunch at the InterContinental, but on Saturdays the workshop finished early and we went across to the offices of the Afghan Media Group. On such occasions, Yusuf and I sat in Mansour’s office and the three of us ate and talked.
‘This here is Afghanistan,’ Mansour said, pointing to the dead sheep.
I smiled at the metaphor.
At the start of a bushkashi tournament, a sheep’s carcass was placed in a certain spot, and all the riders rushed towards it. The one who successfully grabbed it had to ward off attackers and drop the dead animal in a marked area, much like scoring a goal. Some regarded it as a warrior’s sport; others thought of it as training in banditry.
‘Except, Mansour jan,’ Yusuf intervened, ‘Afghanistan is not dead but full of alive men, women and children who are suffering.’
Mansour said. ‘I’ll explain that comparison in a minute.’
‘So where is the Taliban?’ I said. ‘And where is Al Qaeda?’
Mansour pointed to a tall bearded rider close to the carcass with a triumphant expression on his face, as if he’d already grabbed the booty.
‘This is the Taliban,’ he said, and pointing to another rider just behind with a sneering, violent expression, added, ‘and that is Al Qaeda.’
‘What’s the difference?’ I said.
‘The Al Qaeda is not at all bothered about how many civilians die in Afghanistan,’ he said. ‘For that matter, the Taliban is also not bothered but less so. If the Taliban is half crazy, Al Qaeda is completely mad. At the end of the day, the Taliban are Afghans.’
Yusuf said, ‘And where are the Americans? And the Pakistanis?’
Mansour pointed to a fat turbaned man sitting in the audience.
‘That’s them,’ he said.
‘The Americans or the Pakistanis?’ I said.
‘You’ll see the same man in every bushakashi tournament,’ Mansour said, extending the metaphor, ‘but each time the turban is different. The headgear indicates if the person is British, American, Pakistani, Indian, whatever …’
Yusuf said, ‘So what’s the solution, Mansour jan?’
‘The solution, my friend,’ Mansour said, ‘is for the dead sheep to stand up and become a horse.’
‘How can that happen?’ Yusuf said. ‘What does that mean?’
‘For the common people of Afghanistan to stand up. Not be like a dead sheep. They need to make their voice felt.’ Mansour turned around and reassumed his position at the table. ‘But let’s eat now. The food is getting cold.’ He started to lift the lids off the serving dishes.
The food threw off wonderful aromas and was predictably rich, but it wasn’t extravagant by Afghan standards: sheep curry, chicken kebab, a vegetable dish, together with the triangular, oven-fresh Afghan bread.
‘Would you agree?’ I turned to Yusuf. ‘I mean, about the difference between Al Qaeda and the Taliban?’
‘Sometimes the lines are blurred,’ Yusuf said. ‘Take the Takfiris, for instance. They are a mad lot, and not a small group either. You’ll find them all over Peshawar. Some of them are part of the Taliban.’
‘Who are these – these Takfiris?’
‘The Takfiris are all for suicide bombings,’ Yusuf explained, ‘and want to kill off all the infidels. That’s how extreme they are. This group believes that anyone who lives in Kabul under an American-supported government is automatically an infidel, and the bloodier or more horrific the slaughter of these infidels, the better. You deserve to die if you simply live and work in Kabul, and you deserve to die even more if you work for the government or are with the foreign agencies. According to the Takfiris, I too am a traitor, simply because I live and work in Kabul.’
I said, ‘You exaggerate.’
‘Not at all,’ Yusuf protested. ‘A good friend of mine employed by the government in Kabul was on a visit to Peshawar to meet some of his relatives. He was kidnapped, executed and hanged on a tree. His crime? He worked for the government. These Takfiris! They are mad.’
Mansour and I fell silent.
Mansour said, ‘Thankfully, the Takfiris do not have a dominant position within the Taliban.’
The Taliban leadership still reined in the Takfiris, but it was anyone’s guess how long this would continue. I mulled over the horrific scenario. If they assumed a more powerful role within the organisation, the Taliban would start to target and massacre ordinary civilians in cities outside their control. Afghanistan would descend into even greater chaos, like Iraq during the worst days of the Bush period.
‘So then,’ I said, ‘what’s the difference? If you have groups like the Takfiris …’
‘The Takfiris basically spout Al Qaeda ideology,’ Yusuf said, as he pushed a plate of deep-fried aubergine topped with yogurt in my direction.
‘Yusuf is right,’ Mansour said, munching kebab. ‘If you leave aside the Takfiris, many groups in the Taliban are not as bloody-minded as Al Qaeda.’
‘The thing is,’ Yusuf said, now pushing a jug of pomegranate juice towards me, ‘all this talk about the universal brotherhood of Islam …’
I nodded, willing him to continue.
‘It’s not true,’ Yusuf said. ‘It doesn’t happen like that. In Peshawar, my Pakistani friends would say, “Oh, no, we can’t have that. Pakistan would descend into chaos.”’
‘Any kind of trouble in their own country. And I would think, “It’s all right for Afghanistan to descend into chaos, but not for Pakistan? What’s happened to the universal brotherhood?”’
Mansour was nodding in agreement.
Yusuf said, ‘Everyone is more concerned about their own country, their own people. Al Qaeda is concerned about the Middle East, Palestine, Arabs. The Taliban simply wants to return to power in Afghanistan.’
‘So nationalism dilutes the brotherhood.’
Yusuf said, ‘The Taliban wouldn’t want to kill their own people. They are politicians, and they used to be in power. They know better than to antagonise their own people. It’s great if the Americans killed innocent people, because it will turn people in their favour.’ He pushed his plate away. ‘Mansour jan, I cannot finish this chicken kebab. Can I …?’ and he proceeded, with his chief’s agreement, to transfer uneaten portions of chicken on to Mansour’s plate.
‘Do you agree?’ I looked at Mansour, who was concentrating on his plate.
He polished off the chunks of chicken, and emitted a sigh of satisfaction.
‘I agree,’ Mansour said. ‘The Taliban wouldn’t hesitate to cause mass casualties outside of Afghanistan, say in Pakistan. But they are politicians and will not kill ordinary Afghans without any cause. On the other hand, Al Qaeda wouldn’t hesitate to cause mass slaughter within Afghanistan for no reason at all. Just to spread chaos.’
The Al Qaeda wouldn’t hesitate to cause mass slaughter within Afghanistan for no reason at all.
Mansour and Yusuf started to gather and put away the plates on top of a smaller desk in a corner of the room. It was now nearing four o’clock in the afternoon. By this time, it being a Saturday, the rest of Mansour’s staff – including the cook, the driver and the odd helper – would have gone home.
There was a knock on the door. Clearly a visitor.
‘Come in,’ Mansour said.
A thin young man with a crooked moustache entered, attired in a dull grey uniform. There was a blue badge with an impressive logo appended to his shirt pocket. He carried a big packet of envelopes in his hand.
Mansour said, ‘What is it?’
‘Letters on a Saturday afternoon?’ Shrek laughed. ‘You know there’s no one here at this time normally. We like to get them as early as possible, but it could have waited till Monday morning I suppose. But thank you. We appreciate Sky Falcon’s efficiency.’
Yusuf said: ‘That seems to be quite a big bunch.’
‘The reason I’ve come,’ said our visitor, ‘is because these letters are delayed by about three months.’
‘Three months!’ Mansour raised his voice, more in shock than anger. ‘What are you talking about?’
The man said: ‘You remember there was an attack on our office?’
‘Yes, I remember,’ Mansour said.
‘There should be a press report in one of those folders.’ Yusuf walked across to a corner with steel racks. ‘The one labelled “Attacks on Media” might interest Anzan.’ He took out a folder, withdrew a sheaf of paper and gave it to me.
I scanned through the press report. A courier company in Kabul was attacked by a lone gunman. The Afghan American owner had survived, but one of the security guards was killed. The reason for the attack? No one knew. The courier provided services to American contractors but had many other customers. No one claimed responsibility. A random, unexplained event like so many others.
‘Everything inside our office was sealed and kept aside,’ the courier elaborated. ‘There were rumours that we might have been sent a letter bomb.’
‘So you didn’t deliver anyone mail that arrived months ago?’ Mansour didn’t hide the sarcasm in his voice. ‘What about the mail that came afterwards? Couldn’t there have been a letter bomb there?’ He raised his hands. ‘I don’t believe this. There could be cheques inside. After three months, the banks won’t cash them. Ya Allah!’
I thought I saw the ghost of a smile on Yusuf’s face.
Crooked Moustache said: ‘I’m sorry, sir. This was really stupid, I admit.’
‘Well, give them to me now. Let’s see if there was anything important.’ Mansour was clearly irritated. He took the bundle from the courier, removed the rubber band that held all the envelopes together and spread them out on his desk. From the bunch of letters he picked up a handful and gave them to Yusuf for him to sort out. ‘I’m hoping that there is nothing important.’
Yusuf took the bulkiest envelope and peeled it open expertly.
‘An envelope inside an envelope.’ Yusuf joked. ‘I hope this is not a prank. No, wait – there is something here … This is something VERY IMPORTANT.’
Mansour and I both turned to look at him.
‘The outside envelope is addressed to you, Mansour jan,’ Yusuf said, ‘but the inside envelope just has “VERY IMPORTANT” written on it.’.
‘Strange,’ Mansour said. ‘Open the second envelope.’
Yusuf tore open the flap. ‘There is a letter addressed to Jamal Hyder, the Somali, because of whom we got into such a lot of trouble. And there is a third envelope inside. This really seems some sort of joke.’
‘Let’s see what’s inside the third envelope.’ Mansour left his chair at the big table and came round to the smaller table where Yusuf and I were seated.
Yusuf said, ‘Should we just give it to the Americans?’
Mansour said, ‘First we need to see what’s inside.’
Yusuf tore open the flap of the third envelope, which was almost as large as the second one. Papers spilled out: typed pages and about a dozen similar-looking pamphlets. Mansour, Yusuf and I each picked one up and tried to make sense of it.
‘Extreme Islamist propaganda,’ Yusuf said. ‘Calling for a blood Jihad against all kafirs.’
‘Non-Muslims,’ Mansour clarified. ‘Let’s see what else we have.’ He began looking through the bunch of typed papers. He picked up what seemed to be a covering note and began reading, translating into English simultaneously for my benefit. ‘A letter to all Islamic-minded brothers. A gathering of militants is taking place in a village north of Kandahar. An arsenal of weapons has been collected. There is a map as well. No wonder the Americans linked us to Al Qaeda.’ He tilted his head in thought. ‘This is similar to what they found in Jamal’s luggage at the airport.’
‘Wait,’ he announced. ‘There’s a list. A list of martyrs.’
I said: ‘Dead jihadis?’
‘No, I think they’re martyrs-to-be,’ Mansour said, scanning the paper. ‘That’s how it’s called.’ He let out a breath. ‘It’s a list of suicide bombers.
‘With names and addresses?’ I said.
Mansour said, ‘It actually does say Kabul right at the top of the page, so I guess they are from here, but only names, no addresses. I guess we do have to give this to the police – and they can decide if they want to share it with the Americans.’
I said: ‘Why was it sent to you?’
Mansour said, ‘Maybe they forgot to write Jamal’s name on the outside. Or maybe they thought that once I saw the letter inside addressed to him, I’d just give him the package without opening the third envelope.’
I wondered why Yusuf had fallen silent, and turned to him to find that his face had lost all colour. Mansour noticed this at the same time.
Mansour said, ‘Are you all right, Yusuf jan?’
‘I don’t feel very well,’ Yusuf admitted. ‘I think I’ll go home.’
‘Let me drive,’ I offered. ‘I can drop you off and take a taxi.’
‘I’ll drop both of you home,’ Mansour insisted. ‘Yusuf jan, how do you feel? Maybe we need a doctor?’
‘I’ll be fine in a few minutes,’ Yusuf said.
Ignoring his protests we left the office at once.
Something had happened just now that had affected Yusuf powerfully. He was already looking better when we got into the car, but there was clearly something churning his emotions. He wouldn’t tell us what it was.
At a School on TV Hill
Chapter 22 of An Afghan Winter
I steered the Toyota Land Cruiser past the Babur memorial, built in honour of the founder of the Mughal dynasty, on the western outskirts of Kabul. After crossing the narrow strip of the frozen Kabul River, I drove slowly up the snow-covered slopes of TV Hill. It was given this name by locals and foreigners alike on account of the large communications apparatus mounted on one of its peaks to harness satellite flashback for television, but more importantly military communication for the war effort.
‘I’m going back to the US,’ Zeenat had said, when she called earlier in the day. ‘Can we meet?’
‘Will you come?’ I said.
‘Not the guest house.’ I sensed her cringe. ‘I still can’t handle it. How about we meet in the school I’ve helped set up?’
I called Afghan Tour Operators and explained my requirements for a heavy-duty machine able to navigate steep inclines.
Women and children trudged up the slopes carrying buckets of water. A cold drizzle started, but this didn’t seem to deter the fair-skinned, beautiful Afghan children who came out to watch. Some waved, while others shouted a few words in English: ‘Good morning’, ‘Hello’. Mud houses, roads, boulders and trees carried red or white signs: the white an indication of mine clearance, the red a potential death walk.
The Maleka Suraya School wasn’t difficult to locate as everyone seemed to know about it. A three-room makeshift school, the front door open.
I stepped into warmth emanating from a wood-fed earthen stove burning in the corner.
Two boys and a girl, still in some form of school uniform, sat on benches and stared at me. I walked past them and sat on the schoolteacher’s chair inside the small mud dwelling, and waited.
I said, ‘Does anyone speak Urdu?’
‘Han,’ said the eldest boy. ‘Yes. Are you from Pakistan?’
‘No, from India. I said: ‘Are you from Kabul?’
‘No,’ the boy answered. ‘I am Abdul from Laghman.’
‘And your friends?’
‘Majid is from Wardak,’ Abdul said, ‘and Nafisa is from Jalalabad. Do you know that people from Wardak are supposed to be very stupid? And people from Laghman, although I shouldn’t praise myself, are supposed to be very intelligent.’
‘How can you say that?’
‘A man from Wardak,’ Abdul said, who kept translating for the benefit of his audience, ‘was found eating a very hot chilli. Tears were streaming from the man’s eyes. Someone asked him, “Why are you eating that chilli and suffering so much?” and he replied, “Oh, but you see I paid good money for it.”’ He grinned, seeking approval.
Majid said: ‘At least he was eating it. A Laghmani would have put it up his butt.’ He howled with laughter at his joke.
The girl smiled.
I said, ‘So what can you tell me about the intelligence of people from Laghman?’
‘Oh, believe me, the people from Laghman are very intelligent,’ Abdul said, ignoring his friend’s remark. ‘Laghmanis have even got the better of the devil. Did you know that Laghman is half way between Jalalabad and Kabul?’
‘No, I didn’t.’
‘Well, it is,’ said the boy. ‘Now, once upon a time the Shaitan and a Laghmani were both walking to Kabul from Laghman. So they thought they should find a way to shorten the distance. The Laghmani suggested that the Shaitan sit on his shoulders and start singing a song of his choice, and he agreed to carry the Shaitan on his back till the song ended. Once it was over, the Laghmani would sit on the Shaitan’s back and he would be carried by the Shaitan until he completed his song. So …’ He translated for the benefit of the other two children, who giggled and then he continued. ‘So first the Shaitan sat on the Laghmani’s back and the Shaitan sang a song for some time. Then he got off the Laghmani’s back and it was time for the Laghmani to sit on the Shaitan’s back. What the Laghmani did was to begin by singing “La, la, la, la, la …”, and he told the Shaitan that this was the music that would precede the song …’ The children were all laughing now. ‘And then after some time he started saying “Pa, pa, pa, pa …” and “Da, da, da, da …”, insisting that all this was music and that it was a prelude to the main song.’ The boy burst out laughing. ‘After fifteen kilometres, when they had almost reached Kabul, the Shaitan could take it no more and asked the Laghmani to get off his back for a while. As soon as the Laghmani got off his back, the Shaitan disappeared and was never heard of again.’
I said, ‘Anything is better than bad music.’
Zeenat entered the schoolroom.
‘Sham bakhair, bibi.’ The children got to their feet.
‘Sham bakhair, bachas.’ Zeenat responded, and then turned to me. ‘I hope you haven’t been waiting long.’
‘Not long at all,’ I said. ‘Meanwhile, I’ve been entertained with wonderful stories.’
Zeenat said, ‘We could sit in the adjoining room. Give us some privacy.’
Completing his tale, Abdul said, ‘There is a place that is marked, you know. Everyone knows the place where the Shaitan disappeared. It is called Shaitan Gumat, the place where the Shaitan vanished.’
I shook each child’s hand, then followed Zeenat to a small adjoining room that served as a makeshift staff room. A thick maroon carpet laid out on top of a jute mat lent the only sparkle to the room, which was very basic, with a single wooden cupboard, three armchairs and a table at the centre on which were placed several newspapers in Dari.
‘Right now, there are three of us,’ Zeenat said, as she sat down in an armchair and motioned for me to do the same. ‘Feroza and Fatima just went home. Today we held a class in the afternoon that parents could attend and decide if they wanted to send their children to the school. Not always easy to persuade Afghans to send girls.’
‘Is this a school for boys and girls?’
Zeenat nodded. ‘Schools are co-ed till the sixth grade.’ She gave a small sigh, and said listlessly: ‘Feroza and Fatima are feeling quite bad about my departure.’
‘You’ve made up your mind, then?’
‘Yes, I’ve decided,’ Zeenat said, ‘because I don’t see any point in my staying here any longer.’
‘Don’t you …?’
‘Of course I want to know who’s responsible,’ Zeenat interrupted. ‘But now we know it wasn’t Greg. Maybe someone from the Taliban. Who knows? I can’t help by staying, and we don’t know how long it’s going to take to find out. If we ever do.’
A knock on the door interrupted our conversation. Abdul carried a tray full of giant-sized wheat biscuits and two mugs of green tea.
‘Oh, baccha,’ Zeenat said, as she stood up to take the tray from him. ‘You shouldn’t have troubled …’
Confident and easy with me, he turned shy with Zeenat. Blushing, he ran off. I heard excited chatter in the background.
‘Try the biscuits.’ Zeenat passed me a mug. ‘Really fresh, from a bakery just down the street.’ She took a sip from her mug and emitted a low sigh of satisfaction. ‘I see no reason to disbelieve Wendell. If the evidence exonerates Greg, that’s good enough for me.’
‘Why would the Taliban wanted to kill Michael?’ I took a bite from the biscuit. ‘Why him specifically?’
‘I don’t know.’ Zeenat was quiet for a few moments. ‘But I think he was turning paranoid – with good reason, as it turned out.’
‘Any particular reason?’ I asked, refusing a second biscuit. ‘I mean, for the paranoia?’
Zeenat said: ‘Something went terribly wrong with his earlier assignment, and that’s why he was brought over to work at the ammunition depot.’
‘So it was a punishment posting?’
‘Did he upset some generals?’
‘Not exactly,’ Zeenat said, ‘but there was, in his words, some major screw-up – for which he was blamed.’
‘Did he say what the “screw-up” was?’
‘No, he was very secretive about his work – but he did mention the place where it happened.’
‘You remember the name?’
‘Let me see.’ Zeenat tapped the side of her chair, trying to push forward the recollection in her mind. ‘I remember there was something to do with unhappiness. Or sadness, rather. Sad, sad, yes, Sadia. That was the name. Sadia.’ She took the mug from my hands and placed it on the tray. ‘Let me just return this.’
Zeenat was right. It was anybody’s guess whether Michael’s killer would ever be found. No name remained in my own list of suspects.
‘I’ve sent them home,’ she said, re-entering. ‘I don’t want this to become a place for them to hang around after school hours, anyhow not just yet – otherwise families will hesitate to send their children here.’
‘What about your work. Won’t you miss that?’
‘Oh, I will, I will,’ Zeenat said passionately, ‘but staying here will just make me more depressed, because of what’s happened. As you know, I hadn’t agreed to marry Michael; I needed time to think.’ She paused for a moment, as if wondering whether to share her feelings with me. ‘You know how it is with Afghan women – even some Indian women I would imagine – and I still think of myself as an Afghan woman, you know.’
I wasn’t surprised. Our childhood shapes us. The child is the mother of the woman, as the expression goes.
Zeenat seemed to struggle with herself, and then continued. ‘For a woman like me, to take a proposal of marriage seriously requires a considerable degree of involvement. And when he was killed …’ She stopped in the middle of a sentence and her eyes filled with tears. She used her sleeve to wipe them away, and with some effort to pull herself together said, ‘I now realise that in my mind I had already said yes. I just needed a few more days before I could tell him this. Michael had been so patient. You know, we hadn’t even … we hadn’t even … made love.’ And then the tears were really falling. ‘It was so stupid of me. With all my gender studies and PhD qualification, it seems that deep down I was still really a traditional woman.’ Her tears stopped, and she was now smiling. I was bewildered by her rapidly changing moods. ‘So, anyhow, now you know why I can no longer stay in Afghanistan.’
I nodded sympathetically. There was little point in trying to persuade her to stay. And I myself would soon be returning to Dubai.
‘I guess I should be getting back,’ I said, standing up. ‘Can I give you a lift back to your guest house?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘I’ve not yet finished for the day. I need to visit a few families to try to convince them to send their daughters to the school.’
Zeenat insisted on coming with me to the car, to see me off.
The car was parked a short distance from the school, where the road was wider and vehicles could pass through. When I’d arrived, its gleaming black surface made a powerful contrast with the shining white snow that covered the hillside, but it was now covered with snow and was one with the rest of the landscape.
We trudged along in the sludge- and snow-covered pathway, being careful not to slip. It was raining when I entered the school, but that rain had turned into snow while I was indoors and the roofs were now painted white.
Zeenat took care to cover up her face with a blue and green headscarf. I wanted so much to give her a parting hug and hold her briefly, but restrained myself, aware of curious eyes peeping out of small neighbouring houses.
‘Perhaps I deserved this, you know …’ Zeenat said.
‘Why do you say that?’
‘Did I tell you that I was once engaged to an Afghan in Peshawar, before my family left for the United States?’
I shook my head.
‘Well, it was my family that broke off that engagement, so we were responsible. In a way, I was responsible, for although at the time I had a more traditional and obedient mind-set, I could have put my foot down, you know.’ There was a far away, almost wistful expression on her face. ‘He was a really lovely man. Perhaps I shouldn’t say this right now, after what’s happened to Michael, but it’s true.’ She sighed. ‘It could be that this is Fate’s way of punishing me.’
‘What was his name?’
‘Yusuf,’ she said. ‘Yusuf … I’ve forgotten his last name.’
I remembered a stoned evening in which Yusuf spoke to me about his former fiancée. The most beautiful woman in the world, he’d said. And when I asked him the name, he’d shied away from revealing it.’
I remembered, too, that when he spoke of her it was to say ‘She is the most beautiful girl in the world’ and I corrected his tense with ‘You mean “was”.’
Perhaps it wasn’t an error. Perhaps Yusuf had seen her in Kabul sometime, and remembered that face.
Zeenat said, ‘Why do you ask?’
‘Nothing.’ I shook my head. This was a judgement call, and I took my decision not to tell her about Yusuf. There wasn’t really any point in telling her. Yusuf was a ‘lovely man’, but life had taken him and his thinking in a different direction. Zeenat was headed home, and Yusuf was planning on getting married soon.
We shook hands. I stepped into the car.
I saw her raise her hand up to her smiling, beautiful face to wave at me for a few moments, and then the mist swallowed her up.
Continued to "A Slaughter of Innocence"